Untying the Knots | Episode 1 | Family Redefined

Dawn Smith and Kristen Files, partners at Atlanta-based family law firm Smith & Files, host “Untying the Knots.” Season 1 offers practical advice and resources to families navigating crisis and covers such themes as co-parenting, intimate partner violence, myths about marriage and divorce, support systems, and financial safety after divorc. The 10-episode series launched July 1 with new episodes weekly through September 2 and includes special guests Chief Judge Christopher Brasher, Chief Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Stolarski, and Historian and Marriage Expert Stephanie Coontz. Below is a transcript of Episode 1: Family Redefined.

“Untying the Knots” is available on all streaming platforms, including Spotify and Apple Podcasts. To learn more, visit smithfileslaw.com/podcast.

DS: Dawn Smith | KF: Kristen Files

DS I’m Dawn Smith.
KF And I’m Kristin Files.
DS This is Untying the Knots, a podcast about family crisis…
KF And what it takes to survive the tangles and strengthen the ties.
DS Welcome to Untying the Knots. We are excited to be doing our first episode. My name is Dawn Smith and I’m a family law attorney. I am also divorced and come from a family of divorce. I’m the mother of two adult children and remarried to my husband.
KF My name is Kristen Files. I’m also a family law attorney. I’m a child of divorced parents. I’m a mother who co-parents with my ex. I am a friend, a sister, a dog mom, and I am excited to be doing this podcast with Dawn Smith.
DS So Kristin and I work at a law firm. When we’re fully staffed, we have six lawyers and three amazing staff people, all female. I don’t know that that is intentional.
KF But it’s lovely.
DS It is lovely, other than the fact that it works. We focus pretty exclusively on matters involving the family, and that can be anything from divorce and custody disputes, adoption, legitimation, anything involving the family. So let’s tell folks how we met.
KF Cool!
DS I think it’s a fun story. I think it’s one of the top probably 10 to 15 highlights of my life.
KF Really?!
DS You have added that much to my life.
KF That is so sweet.
DS But it’s very, very true. I remember meeting you at a family law conference several years ago in Florida. We have a mutual friend.
KF I know. I’m smiling so big right now, because that really is so sweet. So yes, we have, our mutual friend introduced us. We were at this conference at breakfast. And I remember us sitting there, me and our mutual friend. We’re at at one table, and you and your husband are at another table eating breakfast. And she’s like, “That’s Dawn Smith. I’m going to introduce you guys.” And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Introduce us, introduce us.” So then I don’t know if you walked over, maybe you were getting breakfast or getting something on the buffet line. And…
DS Oh no, honey, I walked over.
KF Oh you did?
DS I remember. Mhmm.
KF Okay.
DS I walked over. I wanted, I wanted to see her and I wanted to meet you.
KF Okay, good. Yeah. So then when she introduced us, I was like, “Yes!” Because as a young female attorney, I was looking for mentorship and I was looking for… just to be in the presence of women who I saw doing what I ultimately wanted to do. And you were doing that, still are doing that, I still feel that way about you. So I was intentional after that about being like, “Hey, can we grab coffee sometime? Can we grab breakfast some time?”
DS You were also a great attorney. And after I got to know you, I wanted you to be with us. So Kristen and I’ve worked together for a number of years now. And we frequently find ourselves in each other’s office, in conversation that may begin around a particular case that is then informed by our own life experiences, our history, whatever we’re currently going through at the moment. Organically from that came our desire to have a podcast where we can talk to you the listeners, every one of whom came from a family.
KF Yeah.
DS About what we’ve observed and seen, about both conflict and family, best practices and family, so that you might avoid some of the mistakes we see our clients make, certainly the mistakes we’ve made, and the mistakes our parents made.
KF Yeah, yeah. But it’s really important, especially with the types of clients that we have and what they’re going through. And the fact that really family is everything, family impacts everything. So being intentional about how we advise our clients to walk through the crises that they’re experiencing, but with also a really human touch of compassion and empathy, is a hard balance, but something that we’re both intentional about. I think seeing my parents divorce and being in our court system is a large part of the reason why my ex and I were never involved in the system. I intentionally, and he intentionally, we never went to court because of my own desire to work things out without the trauma that that process can cause.
DS How this resonates for me is one of the things that we know about children and their experience of trauma is that conflict and divorce or custody disputes is by their very nature, by the very fact it occurs, a traumatic event. And I experienced that personally as a young child. And I know then that my life – as a result of that, many other things – was chaos. And so the reason I want to do this podcast is because I think that if you’re involved in a family and in crisis, you’re going to make mistakes, but I think there’re ways to make the mistake or be aware enough that it can lessen the impact on the children. And I feel so strongly about that, because ultimately, they’re the innocent bystanders. And I know that the people that we see and our listeners that are going through it, they don’t want to hurt them.
KF Yeah, most of the times people just don’t know how not to. Or it happens unintentionally.
KF Right? Exactly. So on this podcast, I think that you can expect straight talk, some interesting stories. Sometimes they’re funny; frequently they’re heartbreaking.
KF We think we are very funny.
DS Right? We think that you can expect us to overshare at times because we will tell you about what we have been through and how that has influenced us. You can also expect to hear from some experts and for us to provide resources for you and your family as you navigate all the difficult untying of the knots in dealing with disputes.
KF This podcast is not just for people who are navigating a divorce. The topics that we’re going to talk about and the resources that we’ll provide, really just have to do with navigating family and relationships and conflict and trauma and dealing with how to best support yourself and your children. You know, I think as a lawyer, we have a real privilege. We’re a privileged and select group of individuals who have access to knowledge and resources that the average person doesn’t. In addition to having navigated through various traumas in my own life, and now being a mother who’s raising a child, and trying to be intentional about helping her become the best person that she can be, there needs to be a space where people are being intentional about offering resources to others so that they can do all of this in life in the most successful way possible, like in a thoughtful way, and a forgiving way, and a giving yourself permission to make mistakes, giving yourself permission to break out of these social norms that we’re told that we have to follow when it comes to what a family should look like, or how we should raise our children. That’s another reason we’ll have people on this show who can offer a different perspective than either of us can give. And we’ll have people from different areas that can shed light on perspectives that matter that we need to hear from.
DS And we will end the show by offering some resources and other items either in the show notes or point you in directions you can go to to further explore the topic that we addressed in the episode. So this episode may be a little different because to start out with, we want to talk to you about family, our own stories about family and our perception of family, and how that may have changed over time and how we have fleshed out how we see family, both from a personal point of view and a professional point of view. I was born in North Carolina in the 60s, hence my name, Dawn. My mother had just turned 19 years old when she had me, my father was 20 going on 21. They had me when they were very young and very poor. My mother came from a family that included her mother and her grandmother and her sister. My mother’s mother was divorced, which was kind of scandalous at the time. And then my father came from a very southern and very traditional family. My parents struggled to be parents, not because they were flawed in any way, other than that they were very young and maybe entered into this too soon. By the time I was 12, I was pretty clear I didn’t want them to be together anymore. Because in my home, it was rife with conflict. They did not get along. My mother became a business owner when I was around 12. And I think trying on those different roles created some conflict in the relationship as well. So my parents separated and divorced when I was 12. And they did not speak again from the time I was 12 until I was 40 years old. So what happened is, I would go back and forth between homes and if I shared what happened in the other home it made that parent angry. So I lived kind of this schizophrenic existence where I was different people in each home. I was the oldest. I had a brother 12 years younger and a sister 18 months years younger. So it was a hard time for me. I mean, it was hard for me all the way up through my 20s. And one of the things that I said was that I will never, first of all said I’d never marry. Then I said, I will never divorce.
KF Right.
DS Because I will never take my children through that.
KF Right.
DS You know, perhaps the most poignant memory I have is when I was finally able to drive, so I was still a minor, but able to drive my siblings on Christmas morning because, you know, we had to switch on Christmas morning. I had to get in my car, and I had to go to my dad’s house, you know, and I’d leave Mom crying because I had to leave.
KF Yeah.
DS And I get to Dad’s house who is angry because we relate coming from Mom’s house and I remember halfway to Dad’s house, the car broke down. And I just turned around and looked at my siblings and said, “Let’s just run away.” Because it wudn’t worth the presents, right?
KF Yeah.
DS And, you know, I hesitate to even say this, and I’m putting it out in the podcast world. They were doing the best they could with the tools they had.
KF Yeah.
DS I mean, my children, by the time I was 18, my mother was 36 years old, Kristen.
KF Right.
DS They were just doing the best they could. So I said, you know, family must mean happy people being married and parenting children.
KF Yeah.
DS That’s a healthy family.
KF So you started to create your own definition…
DS Right.
KF Based on what you feel would have made the situation better.
DS Exactly. Which would just be happy people that don’t argue all the time and certainly don’t talk bad about each other, or make the kids feel bad about it. So that was my perception. I did end up getting married and I did end up having children. Swore I would never get divorced. Fast forward a bit. And I found myself in the middle of a divorce. I had two children. At the time of the separation, one was three and a half and one was about six months old.
KF It’s hard.
DS And it was really, really hard. And it shattered… You know, my perception was that one, I will never take them through what I went through. And I was taking them through what I went through, right? And there must be something fatally flawed about me and our family unit because it could not stay together.
KF Yeah.
DS And it just blew my mind, like, “pew,” just blew my mind. So for years, particularly the early years, I would see the world through how flawed and imperfect my family unit was, because in those early years, you know this.
KF Yeah.
DS We were the only ones.
KF Yeah.
DS Right? Everybody else’s together. something’s really messed up with me.
KF Well, yeah.
DS But the one thing I decided and it was very hard, I decided I was not going to do what my parents did. I was not going to not speak to their father and have a hideous co-parenting relationship. And it was hard because my heart was broken. And I was very angry and looking in the eyes that used to love me broke my heart.
KF Yeah.
DS Right. But that was my work to do.
KF Yeah.
DS That was not my children’s work.
KF Yes.
DS So let’s hear it for therapy. Good medication. I believe in God so the grace of God in the universe and you know, fast forward to now and there have been ups and downs and over the course of this podcast, I will certainly share them with you. But I love the family unit we have built now. My family unit is my husband who, I have now been married to 16 years, who is very different from my first husband. It is my ex-husband, the father of my children. It is his wife and his other son who is not my son.
KF Right.
DS We are a family unit.
KF Right.
DS And we did it. And we’re able to do it because of my experience, in spite of my experience, and because of grace. And I call my ex-husband’s wife, my sister-wife, because I love her. She’s great.
KF That’s great. That’s great! That’s another thing that connects us, though, in the way that we think about our lives and her kids and parenting, because we’re so different, but we have very parallel ways that we arrived where we are now. I come from a family where my parents were married pretty young. They were married for 23 years. I have two older brothers. And around the time that I was 10, in the fourth grade, they started going through a divorce. A divorce that needed to happen for a lot of reasons. When you’re in the moment, as a child, you see, “My parents are breaking up and getting a divorce!” And maybe you you have experienced the conflict in the home, but don’t realize what that conflict is doing to you.
DS Right.
KF And so now looking back, I can say “a divorce that should have happened.” But at the time, it felt like my family unit was being severed. And I didn’t know how to deal with that. And it’s hard because at the time, I think my mother would say she didn’t know how to deal with it either. And the dynamic of our family shifted very quickly, because that Domino effects everything, right. So the experience that I had as an adolescent, watching my mom who I lived with primarily, just figure it out, like struggle to figure it out and do the very best that she could, well she did a great job for me and my siblings. But it was, it was really hard and a lot of things that my parents went through, I was like, “I’m taking my kids through this. I’m not dragging my kids to court. I’m not arguing with their dad.” I just felt like, I wanted this fairy tale. I just felt like, “I want to grow up, get married, have kids, be really happy. Us, like, go to church together on Sundays. You know, and like…
DS Because that’s what happiness is.
KF …have a dog, and I want to take family pictures together.” That’s what I’m striving for. And when I had my daughter, me and her dad were really young, too. We were about 20 – I was 23 when I had her and he was almost 22. And it’s funny because now I look back and I’m like…. and I have optimistic spirit in general. But I look back now and I remember feeling like, “This is gonna be fine. We can do this. You know, we’re just gonna get married and, like, everything’s going to be fine.” The thing is, nothing has gone the way that I thought it was going to go. But it’s still fine.
DS Yeah.
KF We did not get married. That’s probably the best decision that we ever made, not getting married, because we weren’t, we weren’t prepared to get married. You know, we were, we were young and still figuring our own lives out. But I remember when we were dissolving our relationship, moving out of the house together, figuring out how we were going to divide our stuff and figure out how to split up time with our daughter. I just felt like, even though I felt like it needed to happen, this was a decision that needed to be made, it felt like my whole world was falling apart. And not just because this relationship was ending, but because the narrative I built for myself of what a successful…
DS Right.
KF Parenting life, adult life, marriage, all of that look like, I was just, I’m like, “You blew it, you blew it.” All of the things that you felt, now you’re just going to pass along to your kid, and… You feel like a failure when a relationship ends. But what I can now look back and see that I couldn’t see then, that only this journey has taught me, is that a marriage or a relationship doesn’t have to last forever for it to be successful.
DS No.
KF And shifting the way that I define success, rather than basing it on what I decided it needed to be because it was the opposite of what I experienced in my adolescence and focusing instead on healing myself, and my own traumas, helped me to open my perspective to say, “This can be okay.” So for example, it was really important to me, for my daughter, not to look at the way her father and I lived in separate homes as a negative anomaly. It’s not that because you’re not the norm, this is bad. It’s just like, this is your reality. And me and her dad, we get along really well. And so that’s like when I was saying we have so many things in common in that way that bonds us. Like, I’m going shopping in a couple of weeks with my ex’s fiance, and my daughter, for things to wear to their wedding.
KF That’s so great.
KF And it’s exactly what I want it to be in that way and it doesn’t mean that it’s always been easy, but I we have all worked really, really hard so that our kid could not feel like what you described, for example, “I go over here and I come home. And I can’t talk about what I did over here because this parent hasn’t done the internal work and healing to be able to hear it.” So your child is then trying to protect their parent. And that’s a trauma…
DS Right.
KF That carries on into adulthood.
DS And I do want to say, Kristen, that that you and I, because of our history, because of, I think therapy, because of resources and what we do, and because of luck…
KF Yeah.
DS We have exceptional relationships with our exes, the other parent of our children. And just because listeners here may not be able to get to where they can call the other woman his sister wife and…
KF Right.
DS And go shopping for the wedding clothes, that there’s nothing wrong with them, but it’s in the aspiration.
KF Right. So what’s normal anyway?
DS Exactly. I mean, it certainly wasn’t what was in my head.
KF Yeah.
DS So you know, because we’re nerdettes. And and we have looked at this, you know, we certainly had our own anecdotal research from our profession.
KF Yeah.
DS About what we see come in our doors and what we see in our law practice. But you know, it’s interesting when we went back and looked at it that 40% in this day and age of kids are growing up outside of a married relationship, which is…
KF That’s almost half.
DS I know, I know, and it’s increasing every year. And you and I know that, we see it all the time now.
KF And you know why that’s hard?
DS Why?
KF Many reasons, but one, for example. It’s like your kids go to kindergarten. And the first project they have to do is, is the family tree.
KF Yeah. And I get it, okay. You want your kids to like be able to name who’s in their family but do you know how isolating that is for kids who don’t live in a traditional family structure?
DS Because listen to this stat: one in five children experienced breakup of a marriage by age nine. I’ll tell you the stat that’s most disappointing to me. And I know that you and I have talked a lot about it because it means a lot to you, particularly, is that 26% of the children live with one parent. The second most common family arrangement is a single mother family arrangement. But the percentage of kids that live in a single parent household with fathers has only increased from one to 4% in the last 55 years. And you know, that’s 2.5 million homes, but it’s still given, you know, there’s a father and a mother or a sperm donor and a mother and a carrier. And that’s really low for my liking because I think your and I’s experience is that father’s, man…
KF Matter.
DS Really matter. We love the dad’s we represent.
KF That is low.
DS Yeah. So we’ve talked about what’s normal, but what is even healthy?
KF Yeah.
DS In a relationship, you know, what would you say is healthy?
KF I think healthy is where people are allowed to be vulnerable, be themselves, and feel supported. It’s really hard to do that for children because I think what we have to remember is that parents are still growing and figuring out who they are as well, when they have kids. Learning that has given me so much perspective and compassion for my mother as I’ve become an adult.
DS Yeah.
KF Because as a child, you look at your parents like these gods, but they’re figuring things out as well and having stress in their lives.
DS Right. And we know that conflict is the single biggest indicator of child health post breakup, right? The conflict that’s either in the relationship that’s ongoing that they’re a part of, or post divorce or post breakup, the level of conflict. The research has shown that conflict has such a negative impact on children, that it increases their risk for sexual promiscuity at an early age, drug and alcohol abuse and even in some studies has shown to decrease IQ points which is really significant. It is hard to get IQ points, it’s even harder to lose them. So that is how significant conflict is. And the other thing I would add about what is healthy that we tell our clients a lot is: if you’re okay, the kid’s gonna be okay. When I hold my new dog, like I held her yesterday in the midst of a case blowing up and I’m very stressed, right? And so she shivered the whole time. I held her this morning when I was in and happened to have meditated. She was chill, no shivering at all. And I know that’s a lame little, you know?
KF No, that’s so true.
DS It is so true about children. We have both seen it, you know…
KF Absolutely, absolutely.
DS They take our cues from us, take care of yourself. That’s what health is about.
KF So an example from my life is that when I first started navigating this co parenting with my daughter and her father, it’s funny because I’d gotten out of this one fairy tale, about it has to be like a perfect family. But then I got into this other fairy tale of feeling like I have to be really okay with this and really happy because that way, my daughter will be really happy and then everything will be fine. I don’t ever want to let her see me be upset or ever want to let her see that this is bothering me, which is just not true. And you can’t maintain that. What I had to figure out, what was my, what was the space that I could allow myself permission to break down to deal with how I actually felt, to take care of myself, or to give myself permission to say, you know what, I’m not going to hang out with my child tonight. I’m going to go out with friends and do things that have nothing to do with being a mother. And that’s okay. You know.
DS I think what we do, what we teach our kids when we’re so intent on, “Everything’s okay, and I’m going to be okay, because if I’m okay, then they’re okay…” Is that we teach them when they don’t feel okay, and things are wrong, that there’s something flawed about them.
KF Yes, yes. Yeah.
KF That them watching us live through the humaneness of life, which is frequently messy and cluttered, coming out to the other side is a skill. We want them to know that.
KF Yes, that’s a really good point. That’s a skill that in my adulthood I have just started to really get, and that I share with my clients as well that you’re not going to be okay all the time. To some extent. You need to allow your children to see you be a human being.
DS Exactly.
KF Because it teaches them how to be a human being. I had a therapist tell me this, that to help your daughter figure out how to have a bad day and bounce back from it. She needs to see you do that. You can’t always have a great day and then not understand why she doesn’t know how to navigate through her bad day.
DS Exactly.
KF I’d never thought about it like that. You have to find some balance of that. Otherwise you’re doing yourself and the kid a disservice.
DS Exactly. So I want to thank everybody listening to our first inaugural podcast episode.
KF Thank you!
DS We think this is important. We think you’re important. We think your family’s important.
DS To learn more about the changing family structures we talked about in today’s episode, you can find articles from the National Center of Family and Marriage Research https://www.bgsu.edu/ncfmr.html, and the Pew Research Center at https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/ .
KF If you would like to know more about the topic we discussed today, you can find show notes and resources on our website which will be linked in the episode description.
DS Untying the knots is a production made in partnership with FRQNCY media. I’m your host Dawn Smith.
KF And I am Kristin Files. Enna Garkusha is our producer.
DS Peter LoPinto is our editor. Episode research is by Jessica Olivier, Becca Godwin and Vincent Mitchell.
KF We are recording in Atlanta, Georgia during the pandemic.
DS We want to thank all essential workers and those who are doing their best to keep us healthy and safe.